Friday, October 7, 2016

Technology is always changing, except for the Shure Model 55

     There was a lot more I wanted to fit into here, such as the fact that the first time electric loudspeakers were used in public was in Chicago -- at the Olympic Theatre in September, 1912, when Bell Telephone and Western Electric rigged 10 speakers to transmit sound effects from backstage. Or that "microphone" is like "cursor," one of those words that started with one kind of technology and ended with another. Two hundred years ago "microphones" were ear trumpets—something the hard-of-hearing used to make small noises larger, hence the name. Still, I really enjoyed my visit to Shure, and hope some of that enthusiasm came across. 

     Of course it stands out.
     In an era when hi-tech design means some version of the Apple lozenge, all brushed steel and rounded corners, how could you fail to admire an example of 2016 technology that owes its look to the chrome grille of a 1937 Oldsmobile.
     The Shure Unidyne Model 55 Dynamic Microphone debuted in 1939 and has been in production ever since, more or less unchanged. A few tweaks: the quarter-sized diaphragm inside, glued to a coil of wire that turns sound vibrations into electrical impulses, went from aluminum to Mylar. The inner windscreen, once cloth, is now foam.
     The company that sells them, Shure Incorporated, started in Chicago in 1925 and has staked out an enviable position both revering its past and working at future innovation, or so it seemed to me when I toured its Niles headquarters.
     I assumed the Helmut Jahn building was designed for Shure, since its decorative screening so boldly evokes a microphone. Actually, it was built for Ha-Lo Industries.
     “They went bankrupt building the building,” said Michael Pettersen, director of corporate history, overlooking a few other factors, like Ha-Lo’s disastrous purchase of Starbelly.

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  1. Classic Neil visit to the manufacturer. Love it! I've used mics professionally all my adult life, and the brand "sure" does matter (see what I did there?!). Shure is the best, all around. "Director of Corporate History;" wow, never heard that one before. Sounds like a cool place to work.

  2. Almost worked for Shure. Helped a friend of my wife fill out a job application and realized that I was much more qualified for the job than her. But I had a job and she didn't. Another one of those eeny-meeny-miny-mo moments that have defined my life. Hoping I have a few left.


  3. Damn, Neil, there is no one better than you at mining seemingly inconsequential things for fascinating details.

    1. I have to admit, Scribe, when I realized I was going there, I thought, "What could possibly be interesting about it?" That's the thing; there is always fascination. All you have to do is look for it.

    2. Looking for fascination is one thing; finding it another. Making others equally fascinated is an art mastered by few.


  4. My cousin, a writer by vocation and a drummer by avocation, recently landed a job there as a technical writer. Couldn't be happier for him, knowing the sterling reputation of this company both in their product and what seems to be their corporate philosophy/environment.

  5. This is my favorite kind of NS column. There are so many more untold stories right in our backyard. Please write more.


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